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Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I shall be interested to hear why my hon. Friend believes that an hour and a half would be remotely sufficient to discuss a subject as important as religious hatred, given that all hon. Members, I am sure, have received anguished letters from constituents on the subject and Report provides the only opportunity for those who did not have the privilege of being members of the Standing Committee to debate such matters. Will my hon. Friend reconsider his comment, albeit that it was an attempt at generosity on his part?

Mr. Mitchell: Despite the fact that what he says is true, I invite my right hon. Friend to listen to my comments on all the other aspects of the programme motion and to consider, in the spirit of the good will that the Opposition are trying to engender, whether one and a half hours to debate religious hatred might be sufficient.

The second topic of discussion is intercepts. It is dealt with in a new clause, which has attracted support from hon. Members of all parties. Although it was discussed only briefly in Committee, it is a key provision that abuts on a subject of great concern across the House—those people who are currently locked up in jail and are outside the criminal justice system. An authoritative argument has been made that the use of intercept evidence in court could enable those people to be brought back within the criminal justice system. Acres of print have been published on the subject and it has been discussed on every television channel. It relates to the question of house arrest, and to our liberties, yet under the programme motion we shall be able to discuss it for only half an hour. It will take me almost all that time to move and explain the new clause that stands in my name. If the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who has tabled a perfectly reasonable amendment to the programme motion, succeeds in persuading the House to accept it, the House will have absolutely no time at all—zero minutes—to discuss the important question of intercepts.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): To clarify the argument that my hon. Friend is making so
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powerfully and convincingly, let me say that we anticipate at least two votes when the first knife falls, and that they will probably take half an hour.

Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Even if the amendment to the motion is not accepted, the maximum time available to us will be half an hour.

The topic has not been debated on the Floor of the House. It has been the subject of heavyweight reports by Lord Lloyd and Lord Newton. The report of a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament, including senior Privy Councillors from both sides of the House, made it clear that intercept evidence should be discussed and preferably agreed upon by Parliament.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I am perplexed. Can my hon. Friend think of any reason why the Government want such a tight programme, and why we should not be able to discuss such an important issue of liberty for a little longer?

Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of the issue. It has been widely discussed outside the House, but we are not to have time to discuss it in the House.

The next subject of the knife is our debate on animal rights terrorism—a matter of great importance on which my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) has produced much good work. During our constructive debates in Committee, he won some concessions from the Government, as did the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). I have just come from an on-the-record meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who is considering aspects of the Bill, and I understand that some matters have not yet been decided. Our approach has been constructive, but the Government are proposing to allow only half an hour if there are two votes after the preceding debate.

The next group of provisions relates to the Opposition's concerns about the nature of a constable. Under the Bill, regardless of their training, every officer of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, whose creation we support, could have the powers of a constable—that is, powers of arrest. This is a serious matter of principle, and again, of liberty, because it changes the nature of police powers to which this country has adhered for more than 400 years. If the Government want to make that change, they have the right to do so—if they can win a vote in the House—but to allow only a half-hour debate on it is wrong.

The final knife before Third Reading falls on the debate on behaviour in the vicinity of Parliament square, which is another important aspect of the freedom to protest. As I said, I have come from a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, who was extremely helpful on the Committee. I pay credit to the hon. Lady. She is still considering whether a change should be brought before the House on Monday on the way in which the issue of Parliament square is handled. This is a matter of concern across the House. There are divisions in all parties on the subject, and it needs to be dealt with on the Floor of the House. Nothing has yet been tabled by
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the Government. Even now the Minister is still considering what the Government should table on this important matter, to be discussed on Monday.

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend may not know that today I tabled some modest amendments to that part of the Bill, partly because I think the Bill could do with improvement, and because considerable discussion is merited on an issue of the greatest importance not just to the House, but to all citizens. Notwithstanding what the Government may or may not do to their own Bill, I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that my amendments will deserve substantial debate.

Mr. Mitchell: I have indeed read my right hon. Friend's amendment, which reduces the cordon sanitaire from 1 kilometre to 200 metres—

Mr. Forth: Yards!

Mr. Mitchell: —to 200 yards. It is an interesting amendment, and I can tell my right hon. Friend that the Government are considering it. They are taking a responsible attitude and trying to work their way through the problem. However, it is outrageous that the Executive should come to the legislature and tell us that we can have only half an hour to discuss the matter on the Floor of the House—along with all the other issues, on which we are being allowed only half an hour.

That is ridiculous. It is a Government abuse because they have a large majority and can win votes. They should not be able to stifle debate. This place works on the basis that we have a right to be heard. If the House can spend 700 hours discussing foxes, surely we can have two days on Report and Third Reading on the Government's flagship Bill. If the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) looks back at the record—I speak as a former senior Government Whip—she will see that no Tory or previous Labour Government ever behaved in such a draconian way by curtailing discussion as the motion does. The motion is an insult to every hon. Member, and to those who send us here and pay us to represent them. Above all, it makes a mockery of scrutinising legislation.

2.22 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I beg to move amendment (a),

'                                                      hours after the commencement of proceedings on consideration.
Amendments relating to the abolition of the Royal Parks ConstabularyTwo and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on consideration.'

I tabled amendments yesterday that were in order and tabled within the appropriate time for them to be considered for selection. I accept that when the
3 Feb 2005 : Column 1028
Government drafted the programme motion and published it this morning, they were unable to take into account the amendments that I tabled.

My amendment seeks to find half an hour in a hectic programme to discuss what I consider to be an important issue. I was not privileged to be a member of the Standing Committee. The Committee considered the transfer of the Royal Parks constabulary to the Metropolitan police, but it did not address the individual rights of members of staff who are to be transferred. If we in the House have any role, our prime role is to protect the rights of the individual, whether they be constituents or others.

The Royal Parks police consists of 141 officers, of whom 42 are members of a trade union, the PCS. Those members of staff, who have served loyally in the royal parks and were commended in Committee for their work, will lose their right to be members of a trade union when they are transferred to the Metropolitan police. They will also lose the value of their pension—estimated at about a 30 per cent. loss. There was no debate about that in Committee, because I do not believe that many hon. Members understood the implications.

I can find no opportunity for debate on Monday, except in the last section of the programme, when many other issues will be debated. As the relevant clause is clause 144, it is unlikely to be reached. We are breaching the fundamental human rights of the individuals in question. When we discussed GCHQ and the protection of the right to become a trade unionist, the Government were clearly committed to those human rights. The measure will also affect the future standard of living of those members of staff, and that warrants a debate. For that reason, I have suggested that we give a small amount of time—half an hour—one third of the way into the programme so that we can deal with the matter.

If we cannot amend the programme motion in that way today, I urge the Minister to take the matter back to her colleagues. It has not been addressed, and I urge her to give sympathetic consideration to the amendments that I tabled and make a statement on Monday about how the Government propose to address this important matter.

2.25 pm

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